Redirection in design practice

Lately I’ve been working as a visiting research fellow in Brisbane, Australia, at Griffith University, Queensland College of Art (QCA). Here, I’ve been fortunate to follow the work of Professor Tony Fry, a design educator, theorist and practitioner, who is focusing on ways to ‘redesign the design practice’ for more sustainable outcomes. According to him design practice works through prefiguration – by solving problems not when they are at hand, but before they arrive – and thus can create a preferred future. Tony Fry calls this process “design futuring” (from his book with the same title, 2008). Hence, design is a practice that directly impacts the viability of our common future. In our contemporary unsustainable present, we could say that designers should indeed be more interested in “designing in-time”, rather than in space (Ibid.). For sustainability, this means starting from a preferred meaning rather than from details.

Design practice can grow, nourish, protect or diminish diverse types of capital. To this end, there is some interesting work emerging from Aalto University by Professor Alastair Fuad-Luke, in which I’ve been partly involved. He has been developing a framework of over 30 forms of capital, with a working title ‘Design Capitalia’ (expanded from the ten capitals outlined in his book Design Activism, 2009), with several doctoral students at Aalto’s School of Arts, Design and Architecture (see his blog for more info).

Examples of this development can also be seen in the initiatives by Aalto University at the on-going World Design Capital year in Helsinki (WDC2012). Aalto has over twenty projects for the WDC2012 under the Living+ initiative, including the 365wellbeing project. Many of these design explorations center around wellbeing, and are not built by merely increasing the efficiency of services and production, but are a holistic aspiration; to identify new ways where design might meet excellence in planning and iterate solutions for societal wellbeing.

A lot of this work has to be done through education, where professionals from different disciplines need to discuss solutions; to ensure an expanded knowledge-basis for decision making to tackle the ‘wicked problems’ of sustainability. As the Aalto University’s few-years-old Master’s program Creative Sustainability entitles, sustainability is something that requires both an inter-professional approach, and a strong common motivation to look for creative connections and solutions for the challenge.

Therefore it is indeed interesting to follow the planning process of the BA level design education here at QCA, where the whole design curriculum, including product, interior and visual communications design, will be oriented with a common philosophy towards a shared goal: Creating a more viable future by design. In May I was fortunate to follow and tutor a student workshop on this topic that gathered the aforementioned 1st year design students to study the challenges of sustainability. The mode of working was very familiar to us at Aalto as well.

According to Tony Fry the primary strategies in the challenge of this redirection are 1) elimination by design, where the unwanted futures are ‘designed away’ by a clever study of the causal (and systemic) effects of one’s choices, and 2) recoding, where the messages that are conveyed by design are transformed according to preferred goals for change. In the end these strategies eliminate the unsustainable by design, thus creating a better, more sustainable world for tomorrow.

While combining the whole curriculum under such interest is indeed admirable, one has to say that things are also very promising at our Aalto University. Through the merger and dialogue between the different professional fields in Aalto, we’ve expanded understanding between the professions yielding some extraordinary results, many of which are already taking shape in the work of future Masters. Students are already creating new kind of professional identities for themselves, getting and making jobs as social designers, sustainable engineers and managers for more responsible business. I am thinking that regarding sustainability in design, we should not just hope for the best, but also acknowledge our existence in relation to time and in relation to future generations – and act for good.